When it comes to street food in Ho Chi Minh City, District 4 is where it’s at. Located across the river from downtown Saigon is the District 4 neighborhood. Down narrow alleyways, known as hems in the local vernacular, the city’s best street food vendors feed the masses day in and day out. Such is the case with mi hen, a briny seafood concoction that up until recently was Saigon’s best-kept secret. Veering off a main drag infamous for traffic jams is a hem that leads to the harbor, and it was there that I discovered my newfound favorite by way of my friend Vinh.
Mi hen is a noodle soup whose main components are mi, instant noodle, and hen, the Vietnamese word for tiny clams. The usage of tiny clams is something most characteristic to Hue, Vietnam’s ancient capital located in central Vietnam about 3-4 hours from Hoi An.Vinh asserts that this is one of a few spots in town that serve this dish and claims it’s the best one around but he may a bit biased. The sight that greets diners are two large pots of alarmingly red liquid. One pot is purely filled with broth, while the other is littered with baby clams, young octopus, and chunkier seawater clams swim around as the vendor ladles a balanced assortment of all three proteins.
Vinh asserts that this is one of a few spots in town that serve this dish and claims it’s the best one around but he may a bit biased. The sight that greets diners are two large pots of alarmingly red liquid. One pot is purely filled with broth, while the other is littered with baby clams, young octopus, and chunkier seawater clams swim around as the vendor ladles a balanced assortment of all three proteins.
Mi hen is defined by the use of tiny clams but at this restaurant, in addition to clams, customers can also order their mi hen with octopus (the miniature, whole body kind) and a type of seawater clam known as an ark clam. Fun fact: in Vietnam, all shellfish fall under one main category, oc, which translates into snails. These ark clams are clams and not snails by Western evaluation, although locals would label ark clams as a type of snail.
These marine critters are not the only things that add piquancy to this dish. The broth is a sensorial wonder: 1/3 spicy which comes from sa te, a chili sauce and chili powder combo, 1/3 sour from the use of tamarind sauce, and 1/3 salty from the tiny clams. It is then garnished with fresh herbs and served with a condiment known as mam me, tamarind sauce and a bit of fish sauce mixed together. While this dish is mainly eaten with instant noodles, you can substitute the ramen with thin rice vermicelli if you prefer.
Mi Oc Hen Di Loan, on 2/4 Ngo Van So Street, sits diagonal to a popular university. It is also located near the harbor, drawing in a large number of deck hands and mariners. Property development has risen within the last year on this stretch of land facing the Saigon Harbor meaning construction workers are also regulars to this establishment. It was in his college years as an attendee of the university that Vinh first discovered this place. He shared with me that it used to be his special place with his friend Thuong, but over the years, word has spread and it isn’t as exclusive as it used to be. Vinh jokes around that this spot has made a list of top best dates under 100,000 VND as a fully charged bowl with all three meats costs only 30,000 VND.
From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., this family run business serves its clientele without break or pause. The turnover rate is insanity; as soon as table vacates, waiting customers fill in an empty space. In Vietnam, it is rude to linger at mom and pop shops like this one as hawkers such as this one depend on quick dining to make sales. While the waitstaff were predominantly female, the chef at the front of the house is male. We failed to ask his relations to the women, but there was no mistaking this was a family affair and a multigenerational one at that. The only missing family members on the floor were youths, a comforting observation as it indicated that the family could afford to send their kids to school.
It is a common sight to see young children and adolescents employed at hawker stalls, an occupational hazard of mom and pop shops as education is compromised for the sake of free labor. The waitstaff were super attentive and kindhearted, adding to an already exceptional dining experience. As a seafood enthusiast, this spot definitely ranks as one of the top five eating experiences I’ve had in Vietnam if not for the food, than for the service.
Despite the fact that this restaurant is actually an established venue, be warned that there is no AC. We dined during lunchtime hours and the heat permeated every fiber of my being, which was especially uncomfortable as we were eating hot soup. If you want to visit this shop, early morning and late evening when the sun isn’t too strong is best. Be careful as to not eat this as a snack; even the small serving is quite heavy because of the amount of seafood so be advised, this a proper meal that is best appreciated as lunch or dinner. One more thing to add: the soup is quite salty so if you’re not a fan of too much salt or have high blood pressure, steer clear
Dish’s name: Mi Hen
Price: ~25.000 VND/ bowl
Opening time: From 7.00 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Address: 2/4 Ngo Van So Street, District 4
Read more: Street Feast – Eating Bun Do with Van – #1
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